Mirrorless Cameras and Stock Photography


This is from the early days of mirrorless photography. All of that kit packed into the Panasonic bag and two of my nephews and I used to shoot wedding videos with this lot. i've always loved those red Panasonics and wished they still made them. They actually matched our company logo colour and always got some comments. We once got a job when somebody called me and said 'Are you the lot with the red cameras? We want to book you.' If you don't recognise them it's G1, GH1 and GF1 cameras and 7-14mm, 14-45mm (the 1st. Leica one), 14-140mm, 20mm and 45-200mm lenses. Which was the entire Panasonic m4/3 camera / lens range at the time. Things move on, but I've always loved this outfit and got some great results with it. 

As you can see from statements from three of the libraries I sell images through, it is possible to make money (and a living) via stock photography. Though don't get TOO excited about the figures, as they have taken a number of years to achieve. And the bulk of those sales in recent years have been achieved by my shooting on mirrorless cameras. There are sales from images shot on film cameras via scanning and a fair proportion are from DSLR's, but ever since I bought a Panasonic G1 back in 2009 I have mainly used mirrorless and shot tens (hundreds?) of thousands of images with them. And in 2017 that doesn't seem particularly unusual. However, go back only 4 or 5 years and the forums of picture libraries were alive with discussions about how DSLR's were still the 'best' and those mirrorless upstarts simply toys. Pretty much like the attitude to smartphone cameras these days. 

But even back then it seemed that people were making decisions as to what was a 'suitable' camera for stock on other criteria than what their eyes were telling them. A photographic magazine stirred up quite a lot of controversy when they stated that at base ISO that G1 had sharper images than a Nikon D3 or D700, at that time Nikons flagship DSLR's. Since I owned all three back then I could see that for myself. And comparing size, weight and cost it became obvious that, as far as I was concerned, mirrorless would be (mostly) the way to go. 

Now I haven't been exclusively mirrorless since that time, as there have been a few DSLR's that I've used between then and now. Nikon and Canon have come up with some great cameras (and still do) but gradually as mirrorless has moved into a more 'professional' mode, there seems less and less reason to carry around the extra size and weight of the camera bodies and lenses. And yes there are lighter and smaller DSLR's and certainly some big heavy mirrorless cameras, but there is little doubt in my mind that the bulk of 'serious' stand alone cameras in the future will be mirrorless. Four major, historically significant, photographic gear manufacturers from the days of film, Leica, Fuji, Olympus and Sigma don't make a '35mm type' DSLR any more and that section of the marketplace is left to Canon, Nikon and Pentax. All of whom have 'dabbled' with mirrorless, but in reality, no more than that. 

And we are now getting to the stage whereby mirrorless cameras, with the exception of battery life, are starting to move ahead of DSLR's in terms of performance, particularly with hybrid, video enabled, IBIS cameras. Leicas SL (Typ 601), the Olympus E-M1 Mk II, the Panasonic GH5 and even the Fuji X-T2 now have a serious claim to be classed as truly 'professional' cameras. And yes there is the Sony A7 FE series, but with the build quality, e-mount lens mount issues and particularly awful battery life I can't really class them (yet) as anything other than high grade 'enthusiast' cameras (Great sensors though). And while there is no great rush to dump their Nikons and Canons, more and more professionals are beginning to see the virtues of mirrorless. But while stock photographers can be professionals, you certainly don't need a 'professional' camera to make a living from shooting image library material.

The nature of being a stock photographer means that you have a lot of freedom to shoot what you want, when and how you want. And yes that includes the freedom to make wrong decisions and spend far too much time and money shooting material that simply won't sell, but that's another story!! I've written several times that my three best selling images of all time were taken on 10MP & 12MP cameras. Two of them were taken indoors using a tripod, so speed of use, fast responding AF and lots of pixels aren't really an issue when shooting potentially high earning stock images. There is also no client breathing down your neck, no one to impress, so if I feel like going out shooting with a small fixed or interchangeable lens mirrorless camera or even a smartphone, there is nobody around to turn to me with that 'Are you really going to use that thing?' look. There is also the issue that as a stock photographer chances are you will be roaming around on your own and even with the smartphone revolution and people snapping away left right and centre, it can sometimes be a sensible decision not to look too 'professional' and / or conspicuous when taking pictures. And that is where a lot of mirrorless cameras come into their own. 

Now the idea of mirrorless camera systems being automatically small and light has long since gone. There are now mirrorless cameras that are way bigger and heavier than some DSLR's and there are now distinct camera and lens choices between small compact and the aforementioned 'professional' mirrorless cameras. Which is as it should be. Mirrorless is just a different way of previewing the image we are planning to take after all. And mirrorless certainly makes shooting video, which is getting more and more important for stock libraries, a lot easier. 

So is the 'battle' won? Have the 'mirrorless marvels' laid waste to the DSLR behomoths and put them in their place? Well no. By all accounts the Nikon D500 is a wonderful camera and was many peoples choice for Camera of the year 2016. The Pentax K-1 also gets a good press and the Canon 5Ds I was using recently was a terrific camera and only headed out the door to raise money for my Leica SL (Typ 601). But arguably with the Sony 42.5MP and Sigma 50MP Foveon sensors mirrorless cameras can claim to have taken a significant leap forward in terms of image quality. There are few DSLR's that can keep up with them these days. So will I buy a DSLR again? Well never say never, but unless something pretty special turns up, I doubt it. I'll keep using my Leica R5 film SLR anyway, so I haven't entirely deserted the cause. But since I'm shooting more and more video, mirrorless cameras work better for me and the chances are that I would switch to some souped up smartphone rather than go back to DSLR's.

So things have come a long way from when I was writing posts a few years ago saying how good mirrorless cameras were and how I was using them to make a living and feeling that I was talking to a small minority of adventurous and open minded photographers. That minority has certainly grown and now we are. I'm sure, about to start the mirrorless 'versus' smartphone 'debate' in earnest. Simply because smartphone manufacturers are starting to get serious about photography. But then the more things move on the more they stay the same. We've had Large Format 'versus' Medium Format, Medium Format 'versus' 35mm, film 'versus' digital, 'Full Frame' 'versus' APS-C AND m4/3 and I'm sure the aggravation, hostility and 'debate' over people trying to justify their purchasing choices isn't going to disappear anytime soon. And as I've tried to demonstrate the only way to satisfactorily settle these issues is to let time take it's course and see what emerges. Certainly that has been the case with mirrorless and I presume it's going to be the same with smartphones. And I noted the other day while edited some iPhone images that just like that groundbreaking Panasonic G1, my Apple device produces very sharp 12MP raw files. Now is that a coincidence or a sign of things to come? 

But whatever the outcome of that, there is no doubt that Mirrorless cameras are here to stay and their very nature allows camera design to move on. One day maybe Nikon and Canon too will catch on and realise that embracing high quality mirrorless isn't a move to the 'dark side', but in the meantime with Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji, Sony and Leica pushing the boundaries of what we can expect from a camera they may yet regret their conservative approach. 

Mirrorless looks (and feels) a little different these days. This is my Leica SL (Typ 601)